Career and Technical Education Critical to Position US in the Global Marketplace

03/31/2010  |  ED MELOTT
career and technical education

As America works on positioning itself in the global marketplace, a hidden gem in education will help develop and produce an educated, qualified workforce: career and technical education (CTE). Since 1862 when the Morrill Act provided land for agriculture colleges in each state to provide instruction, different federal and state education initiatives have enabled CTE programs to align curriculum and skills to the changing economy. As we continue into the 21st century, America is constantly changing with economic, environmental, and political demands, and CTE continues to answer the call in preparing students for today’s and future challenges.

CTE programs are flexible and responsive to workforce needs. Programs partner with business and industry to provide, and ensure, the latest information and technology is available in classrooms to prepare the future pipeline of qualified workers. Across the United States, CTE courses integrate education and workforce preparation through rigorous, relevant curriculum, hands-on training and applied learning.

Current Needs of Business and Industry

According to a 2005 National Association of Manufacturers Skills Gap report, more than 80 percent of respondents indicated that they are experiencing a shortage of qualified workers overall — with 13 percent reporting severe shortages. Despite the recession, high-growth industries like healthcare, renewable energy and STEM fields are in need of skilled employees. This problem is only likely to worsen with the baby boomer generation retiring in the next 10 years.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly one-third of the fastest growing occupations will require an associate’s degree or a postsecondary vocational certificate. Research also indicates that 80 percent of current and emerging occupations require two-year technical degrees, while just 20 percent require baccalaureate degrees.

Healthcare occupations are expected to make up seven of the 20 fastest growing occupations. The American Solar Energy Society and Management Information Services, Inc. published a 2009 report that forecasts the renewable energy and energy efficiency industry could generate up to $4.3 trillion in revenue and create more than 37 million jobs (more than 17 percent of all anticipated U.S. employment) by the year 2030. According to Science and Engineering Indicators 2008, the number of current scientists and engineers retiring will increase rapidly over the next decade. Twenty-six percent of people with science and engineering degrees currently working are 50 years or older, with very few students currently choosing to enter STEM-related fields.

“America’s Forgotten Middle-Skill Jobs: Education and Training Requirements in the Next Decade and Beyond,” discusses how the demand for STEM professionals with education and training above a high school diploma, but below a bachelor’s degree is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. For example, veterinary technicians, nursing assistants, pharmacy technicians, forensic-science technicians and dental hygienists are all among the fastest-growing occupations projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

How CTE is the Solution

CTE programs at both the secondary and postsecondary level help fill the pipeline of workers in high-demand and high-wage fields. With more than 15.6 million secondary and postsecondary CTE students nationwide, CTE programs provide students with the relevance necessary to engage them in academics and help students obtain technical and workforce readiness skills.

Throughout the country, CTE programs are evolving and adapting to meet the changing needs of their communities and increasing the rigor and relevance of their curriculum. One example of this evolution is the growing movement of career academies over the last 40 years. Career academies are small, career-themed learning communities, or “schools within schools.” They bring groups of teachers and students together around a career or college-prep theme, and provide students with high academic and technical skills. This approach uses problem-based learning and cross-curriculum projects that link and align subject matter among two or more courses to integrate academics and CTE.

Career academies provide a link among secondary CTE, strong academics and postsecondary education. There are more than 2,500 career academies, serving hundreds of thousands of students. They can be found in the country’s highest performing school districts and have proven results. According to the Southern Regional Education Board, students at schools with highly integrated rigorous academic and CTE programs have significantly higher student achievement in reading, mathematics and science than do students at schools with less integrated programs.

One of the reasons why career academies are so successful is because of business and industry involvement. Business and industry partnerships and internships provide students with an opportunity to gain a better understanding of available career options. For example, workforce investment boards and economic development agencies are working with local career academies. In Volusia County, Florida, career academies are led by a partnership among Volusia County Schools, Flagler County Schools, Daytona State College, the Workforce Development Board of Volusia/Flagler Counties, Inc., and other business and community leaders that is known as “Career Connection.” The Career Connection provides career awareness, exploration and training to students throughout the high school experience and beyond.

CTE programs also have business advisory councils that help provide advice on curriculum, information on the latest technology and skills needed for careers, and opportunities for professionals to speak with students and tour company facilities. Business and industry also donate equipment and supplies to CTE programs, allowing students to practice on the latest technology.

Collaboration between business and education through CTE can lower the dropout rate, improve academic outcomes and enhance technical skills, leading to greater community prosperity. It can also provide local business and industry with a steady stream of interested and well-qualified employees.

CTE programs not only provide students with technical skills, but they also help students develop their employability skills, which are skills business and industry look for in future employees. Students learn skills like creative thinking, teamwork, presentation and interviewing skills, and resume writing. Not only are students learning skills they can transfer to any career, they are building their self confidence. Randy Bancino and Claire Zevalkink are managing partners at Profitable Growth Partners, LLC., a Michigan-based business strategy and training firm. They wrote an article entitled “Soft Skills” in Techniques Magazine in 2007 that discusses the driving forces behind the growing need for businesses to have broader skill sets within their employees.

The increase in competition and the growing global market apply pressure on companies to operate more resourcefully and to show an increase in return on investments. According to a survey of more than 250 technical leaders, the biggest reason cited for project failure is a lack of soft skills. When employees develop non-technical skills to compliment their technical skills, the survey results show that personal productivity, collaboration and synergy are increased, which translates into improved project success rates, sustainable competitive advantage and increased profitability.

The Future Needs of CTE

In order for the United States to contend on the global level, it needs to continue to find ways to educate and prepare students and adults to be competitive in the global economy. There needs to be more collaboration between secondary and postsecondary institutions to align curriculum and create programs that will train the future workforce. Postsecondary institutions play an important role in training future workers as well as retraining adults already in the workforce.

In order to create more CTE programs, an increase in funding for CTE at both the state and national level is needed. At the federal level, funding for CTE programs has remained stagnant, even though enrollment has increased by 151 percent. The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act is the primary source of federal funding supporting local education programs that connect education and real-world careers, and it hasn’t received an increase in funding since 2002.

High-quality CTE programs supported by the Perkins Act can provide the education and training necessary to stimulate the economy and prepare the country’s citizens for 21st century careers. By investing in CTE, educators, businesses and policymakers can help build a competitive, skilled workforce and ensure that America can remain competitive. Schools, businesses and other organizations working with innovative CTE programs need to share their best practices with their local and national communities, including legislators and departments of education.

One area CTE programs need to focus on is improving how they collect and share data on the impact of CTE, especially in regards to education and the community. For example, for every public dollar invested in Connecticut Community Colleges, it returns $16.40 over the course of the students’ careers. The state’s economy annually receives roughly $5 billion in income from the colleges and their students. Each graduating class from Moore Norman Technology Center secondary CTE programs adds an additional $3.78 million in tax revenues to the state of Oklahoma through increased salaries and wages.

Educators and administrators need to communicate with policymakers, the media and parents about the critical role CTE plays in reducing dropout rates, preparing a qualified workforce, and improving the local economy. They need to paint a picture of how their community would look if they didn’t have proper funding for CTE programs. Administrators and teachers need to share stories with their policymakers and/or the media by writing opinion pieces and meeting with the local education and news reporters. By educating lawmakers and your community about CTE, it may help increase the amount of funding CTE programs receive from state and federal government.


CTE programs are revitalizing communities by spurring cooperation and innovation between high schools and postsecondary institutions, as well as with the business community, to ensure that programs are being created quickly and efficiently to prepare students for careers in fields where their skills are truly needed. CTE helps prepare students and adults to hold high-wage, high-skill, high-demand career fields such as STEM disciplines, nursing, allied health, construction, information technology and energy sustainability.

In the last 20 years, CTE courses have increased their rigor and relevance and developed new courses and programs to adapt to the changing needs of the economy. The lines between academic and CTE are blurring.

 Business and industry are working closely with CTE educators across the country to develop high-quality, high-demand programs that provide students with the knowledge and skills necessary to be competitive in today’s global economy. Through partnerships, advisory councils and teaching, business and industry are working with educators to build a pipeline of workers.

In order to continue to compete in the global economy, we need to continue to build more CTE programs that fit the needs of business and industry. CTE educators must continue to collect data and share these results with their local community, parents, educators, policymakers and the media. It’s essential that educators from both academic and CTE areas work together to develop creative strategies to engage students in the classroom. CTE educators need to advocate for more funding for their programs with local, state and national policymakers to ensure America has a pipeline of qualified workers. Teachers and administrators of CTE programs recognize the value of CTE, but now we need to let others in on the secret.    

Ed Melott is President of the Association of Career and Technical Education.
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